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Exhibitions celebrate the opening of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum

 | The Washington Post

Exhibitions celebrate the opening of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum

Ella Fitzgerald appears amused, her head tilted as she starts to smile. Lena Horne beams with girlish confidence, while Bessie Smith’s knotted brow and hooded eyes suggest a tired dignity.

These intimate portraits of African American singers are among 39 images featured in “Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition celebrates the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture by spotlighting a handful of African American giants. It is one of several at local museums that tie thematically to the newest Smithsonian museum, opening with much fanfare on Sept. 24. They offer visitors a way to build on the stories of the new museum or the opportunity to engage with African American themes in a different way. They might also serve as an escape from the new institution’s predicted crowds.

“Harlem Heroes” presents black and white photographs by Van Vechten, the author and social commentator, that span 30 years and feature major figures of the Harlem Renaissance as well as athletes, political figures and social leaders. The museum acquired the photographs from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983, and many are being exhibited for the first time.

Honoring the opening of the newest Smithsonian seemed the perfect occasion to bring them to the public, said John Jacob, the museum’s curator for photography. “It’s also the perfect complement to the Portrait Gallery’s excellent exhibition ‘Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard,’ ” Jacob said in an email.

Van Vechten was introduced to the African American cultural scene by Walter White (of “Fire in the Flint” fame) and began making portraits in 1932. Initially he photographed close friends, including actor Paul Robeson and singer Ethel Waters, but over the next 30 years, the circle of sitters expanded.

The portraits’ power comes from his combining the formality of the studio with the intimacy of a snapshot, Jacob writes in an essay in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. The images have a modern sensibility, too.

“His signature backdrops were inspired by the French artist Henri Matisse, who often used colorfully patterned textiles in his paintings,” Jacobs writes. “The combination of a modernist sensibility in his use of patterned backdrops with a natural style of portraiture was Van Vechten’s invention.”

The images are accompanied by text from multiple sources. Hanging next to a portrait of tennis great Althea Gibson, for example, is an excerpt from her autobiography. In the picture, Gibson looks relaxed, smiling over her shoulder, a racket in her lap and three tennis balls in her hand. Her words, however, reveal an inner turmoil.

“I could have wished . . . that I might be allowed to play tennis — win or lose — with the same purely individual responsibility assigned to everybody else,” she wrote. “I’m a tennis player, not a Negro tennis player . . . it’s all right for others to make a fuss over my role as a trailblazer, and, of course, I realize its importance to others as well as to myself, but I can’t do it. . . . I want my success to speak for itself.”

“Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten” continues through March 19. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is at Eighth and F streets NW. It is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. 202-633-7970. americanart.si.edu.

Several other museums have programs or exhibitions complementing the soon-to-open African American Museum. They include:

In the same building where Van Vechten’s portraits are on view, the National Portrait Gallery presents photographs of the great jazz artists of the last century. “In the Groove: Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard” captures musicians including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan in smoke-filled clubs and theaters from 1948 to 1960. The 28-piece show, another salute to the opening of the new museum, is on view through Feb. 20 at the gallery at Eighth and F streets NW. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. 202-633-1000. npg.si.edu.

african american museum
Billie Holiday by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949. (Copyright Herman Leonard Photography, LLC

The Phillips Collection unites the 60 works that make up Jacob Lawrence’s masterful “Migration Series” in “People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” opening Oct. 8. The Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in New York each own half of the series, which depicts the movement of African Americans from the South to the North between the world wars. This exhibit presents all of the works together and debuts a website that will include Lawrence’s writings and contemporary responses to his themes.

“People on the Move” continues through Jan. 8 at the museum, at 1600 21st St. NW. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. and most Thursdays until 8:30 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. No charge for members and those 18 and younger. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.

Artist Theaster Gates will discuss art, race and social change with architect David Adjaye, one of the visionaries behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture, at a performance and discussion Sept. 21 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The performance, which is part of the museum’s “Processions” series, begins at 5:30 p.m. and is followed by the discussion at 6:30. The event is Adjaye’s only public appearance during the museum’s grand opening celebration. Tickets are required and are available on the museum’s website. The Hirshhorn is on the Mall, at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.